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"All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a farm labor system in this nation which treats farm workers as if they were not important human beings."
- César Estrada Chávez


  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerSpring 2007EditorialsLibby Editorial   
 Organic Food: A Niche, or the Future? Minimize

By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director

Every new paradigm starts as someone’s harebrained idea, then is treated as a strange idea outside the mainstream, and eventually becomes accepted – or not. If the idea is really successful, after a while no one can remember when it wasn’t “the way things are done.” (Thomas Kuhns, very loosely paraphrased.)

The old paradigm, the industrial approach to agriculture that has prevailed since World War II, is showing signs of stress everywhere. Whether it’s the $16 billion a year in USDA farm payments, bird flu at a confinement turkey farm in England, or E. coli O157:H7 in spinach from the giant fields of California, the system is under pressure. Apple juice from China, soybeans from Brazil, milk protein from New Zealand – again, signals that our food system is changing rapidly.

What’s the new system going to look like? A lot of money and energy is betting that it’s the same system, with a different market. Chuck Hassebrook from the Center for Rural Affairs estimates that all of the corn grown in Nebraska will be used for ethanol production if the facilities now built and in the pipeline are completed. Farmers are going to be the new energy suppliers, not worrying about the environmental impact of growing corn after corn after corn. It doesn’t matter whether the energy balance of corn-turned-into-fuel is positive or not – we need liquid fuels to move cars and planes, and this is our solution.

On another track, billions of dollars more have been invested in the idea that farms are going to be the new pharmacies. Plants and animals, modified through genetic engineering, will produce the products needed by the pharmaceutical industry, and maybe, if we’re lucky, some food. The farm becomes a medium for products that may not be related at all to traditional agriculture. The United States is totally committed to this approach – even though the rest of the world still has questions and concerns, many related to who will control the system. Of course the seeds become the place where control is exerted.

Meanwhile, quietly, another paradigm is taking hold. It’s not radically different from the model of a hundred years ago, although more scientific research supports the basic concepts of organic practices now. In a world where everyone is accustomed to thinking about big solutions, organic and local and seasonal are the quiet answers to the questions that rarely get asked.

How are we going to feed the growing population of the world? How can we cut the miles involved in food transport? What can we do to lessen the use of synthetic fertilizers? A local and organic food system may be the only way to tackle these issues in a decentralized way.

For us, these are common sense approaches to the issues of the world. We see their success in our gardens, on our farms, at our tables. It’s our job to reach out to our friends, our neighbors, and beyond, and to show others that local and organic food is a solution that works.

Finally, we need to tackle all these issues with excitement and enthusiasm and joy. It’s one thing to talk about how well our organic farms work. It’s another to go out there and do the work, and then feed our communities. It’s that connection between field and table that’s missing throughout our society. Our cultural image of agriculture is still our grandparents’ farm. In many ways, our mixed, diversified organic farms and homesteads resemble that cultural stereotype more closely than any other farming system – and that has to mean we’re doing something right.

I’m excited by what all of you are doing. People across the state will be, too, as they taste the food you grow this year.

    

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